Metro Morning

After migration, many Syrians coming to Toronto face psychological challenges

In the weeks and months ahead, Ontario is expected to welcome 10,000 refugees, many of whom will settle here in Toronto.

Mental health clinic anticipates refugees need psychological care

Syrians in a dinghy arriving from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos. The stress of migration, and what happened back in Syria, often plague the refugees upon arrival. (Muhammed Muheisen/AP)

In the weeks and months ahead, Ontario is expected to welcome 10,000 refugees, many of whom will settle here in Toronto.

In the series City of Sanctuary: How ready are we? we're looking at the obstacles to settling those families — and whether we're up to the challenge.

Many of the refugees who arrive here will have seen or experienced disturbing events. And the most significant psychological challenges aren't based on what has happened, but what lies ahead.

Dr. Priya Raju and Dr. Debra Stein, child and adolescent psychiatrists in Toronto, have worked one-on-one with refugee families. They are also co-leads of the migration consultation team at the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre, a mental health facility that serves people under 21.

"Often if the parents aren't doing well, that's when the children are doing poorly," Raju said Wednesday in an interview on CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

"A lot of times adults are more connected with the reasons for fleeing a country than the children are and so therefore the shock of the loss and the moving affects children differently than adults."

Raju said that while children are able to socialize and learn new language skills at school, parents may struggle with meeting the immediate needs of the family. 

"The things that we really need to get ready right now are the basic supports. I think the most important things are going to be housing, employment, stable finances and really good school and community supports," said Stein. "I'm not sure we're there yet."

Support system needed

Even if the families arriving from another country are successfully at solving problems without any psychiatric help, Stein said there are concerns about post traumatic stress disorder or other traumas. 

Both doctors stressed that if Ontario does not have the right support systems in place, families may avoid seeking out the help they need.

"It's not just about illness, diagnosis and individual treatment. It's really about family solutions to problems," Raju said. "Mental health professionals need to think a bit more about their role as advocates, in terms of picking up the phone, calling a landlord, writing a letter around employment."

So as the psychiatrists await the flows of Syrians into Toronto, for now, the two are focused on education. 

"Security and stability in the aftermath is the bottom line," said Stein. "It's really important."